On Wednesday morning, in a courtroom in the city of Kirov, 500 miles from Moscow, Alexei Navalny will finally face the moment he has been expecting for years. Navalny, the most well-known leader of the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, will go on trial for allegations that he helped embezzle 16 million rubles (around $500,000) from a state-run timber company. The actual charges are strange, and even Russia’s investigative bodies acknowledge the overtly political nature of the case. For Navalny and those who have followed his rise, it was only a matter of time before the state unleashed its repressive apparatus against him.

Navalny, who is 36, is a lawyer by training who turned himself into a particularly Russian version of a shareholder activist. He bought small stakes in state-owned corporations and then pushed them to become more transparent, exposing cases of apparent fraud and nepotism. His largest coup came in November 2010, when he posted documents on his blog that appeared to show that managers at the state-owned Transneft corporation had stolen $4 billion during the construction of an oil pipeline to China. As Sergei Guriev, the rector of the New Economic School, told me, “Navalny is not fighting corruption in general, he is fighting specific incidents of corruption.” Or as Navalny himself put it when I first met him in 2010, it’s not enough to say, “corruption is bad.” Instead, he said he wanted to show “what was stolen, who stole it, where the money went, and who in government is responsible.”

As his reputation grew, Navalny widened his focus beyond corruption and began morphing into a de facto politician, albeit one outside of any official political structures. His sincerity offers the obvious antidote to the political manipulation of Vladislav Surkov, Putin's chief ideologist until 2011, whose favored style was cynical, if not nihilistic. His labeling of the pro-Kremlin United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves” became the most successful meme in Russian politics in a generation. Navalny emerged as the star of the protest movement that broke out in December 2011.

With time, Navalny matured as a political figure: he began to deemphasize the nationalist rhetoric that appeals to many Russians but does not sit well with liberal Muscovites, and his speeches became less confrontational. He is far from the democratic savior of Russia that many in the West imagine him as, but he is undeniably the one unifying figure in the opposition around whom a mass movement could form.

The particular charges in the Kirov case, which concern a period in 2009 when Navalny was an adviser to the regional governor, have been opened and closed many times. Since then, with the political and social environment in flux, the state has not known exactly what it planned to do with Navalny, but it has wanted to keep its options open and keep the constant threat of prosecution above his head. The authorities would like to have co-opted Navalny into the managed arena of official politics or to see him flee the country. But he refused to become a proper politician with a party and a declared route to office—perhaps a mistake, given how the opposition’s momentum has slowed in recent months.

The prosecution of Navalny is but one piece in a judicial and legislative campaign meant to intimidate and fragment the opposition. The showdown has become especially personal between Navalny and Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee (effectively Russia’s FBI). Since Putin returned to the presidency last May, Bastrykin has positioned himself at the vanguard of the state’s battle with the opposition, deploying his investigators as a kind of Kremlin praetorian guard. It was at his personal urging that the Kirov case was taken up again. Bastrykin’s motives may be bureaucratic: by interpreting the signal from above to go after the opposition in the most aggressive way possible, the Investigative Committee flexes its muscles within the government and forces the Kremlin to cover for its overreaches. That all aids Bastrykin in the internal struggle for resources and influence—and delivering Navalny would be his biggest scalp yet.

For Putin, as it has been for generations of Russian leaders, the law works not as a check on power but as an instrument for consolidating it. But Navalny presents a harder target than, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company who was arrested in 2003. Khodorkovsky was tainted by his wealth and the air of lawlessness that surrounded the oligarchs who came of age in the 1990s. Khodorkovsky’s trial may have been a case of selective justice, but given his history of financial machinations, many still saw it as justice, however crude or politically motivated.

Navalny will also prove harder to discredit than Pussy Riot, the punk collective tried last year after staging an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral. Although that trial descended into a farce, the notions of feminism, revolution, and radical art performance have little resonance in Russian society at large. The potential for Pussy Riot’s members to be seen as popular heroes was inherently limited: the Kremlin was, in fact, all too happy to present them as the face of the Moscow protest movement. Navalny, by contrast, has charisma and credibility that resonates with a diverse slice of Russian society.

When challenged, Navalny is prone to raise the stakes, to answer every escalation with his own. Just before he was charged last year, he labeled Bastrykin a “foreign agent” and posted evidence of his alleged undeclared property in the Czech Republic. Navalny has put all the case materials for the Kirov trial online and asked readers to judge his innocence or guilt. Last week, in an interview with the Internet television channel Dozhd, Navalny announced his presidential ambitions—likely betting that it’s a smidgen harder for the Kremlin to put an aspiring president behind bars than an activist blogger. But the fact that the Kremlin holds the power to lock Navalny away for a decade shows that even in a period when Putin’s veneer of omnipotence may be fading, the state still retains the upper hand.

It is clear that Navalny will be found guilty. “We have little hope,” his lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, admitted to me earlier this week. Even in cases without political significance, the machinery of the Russian justice system has only one setting: forward. (An investigation by The New Times, a liberal Russian weekly, revealed that the presiding judge in Navalny’s case has issued 130 convictions and no acquittals in the last two years.) As Ella Paneyakh, a researcher at the Institution for the Rule of Law at the European University in St. Petersburg, explained, in even the most unremarkable criminal trials, judges serve the interests of the prosecutors and ignore the defense. In that sense, she added, the “most striking thing about political cases is how little they differ from ordinary cases.” The real question, then, is not the verdict but the sentence: Navalny could be sent to prison for as long as 10 years, or he could be given a suspended sentence.

A suspended sentence would keep Navalny out of prison but it would also legally bar him from running for any political office. Even before he hinted at his presidential hopes, Navalny indicated he would like to run for a seat in the Moscow city Duma in 2014 or for mayor of Moscow in 2015. At the same time, a suspended sentence would deny him the aura of martyrdom that comes from sitting in prison and spare the Kremlin the resulting opprobrium at home and abroad. As he told a Russian newspaper, when “you are sitting in a restaurant in Moscow fat and happy, you cannot say the bloody regime ruined your life."

No matter the exact outcome, the case has given the Kremlin some useful propaganda. Navalny has gone from being a public figure essentially barred from appearing or even being mentioned on state-run television to being talked of as the supposed perpetrator of a 16-million-ruble fraud. That plays perfectly to Russia’s cynical politics, in which any person with political aspirations must be as dirty as all the rest of them.

For all the apparent fear he instills in the halls of power, Navalny is ultimately untested as a national politician and would struggle to pose a direct challenge to Putin. Beyond certain platitudes, his views are not well defined; his platform amounts to a vague pledge of “not to lie, not to steal.” A recent poll by the Levada Center showed that as the percentage of Russians surveyed who knew of Navalny grew from six percent in April 2011 to 37 percent in March 2013, the number of those prepared to support him for president dropped from 33 percent to 14 percent. In a way, that makes sense, as it was only his committed supporters who knew of him two years ago. But if Navalny hopes to increase his popularity—and electability—he cannot merely introduce himself to more Russians. For Navalny and those who place their hopes in him, notoriety is the easy part. That, if anything, is the benefit of becoming the Kremlin’s most feared nemesis.

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  • JOSHUA YAFFA is a journalist in Moscow and a contributor to The Economist. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @yaffaesque.
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